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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and master of ceremonies Thomas Saras attend the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada gala dinner in Markham, Ont., on Nov. 21, 2009.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and master of ceremonies Thomas Saras attend the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada gala dinner in Markham, Ont., on Nov. 21, 2009.

Harper lauds press freedom in speech, doesn't take questions from reporters Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged journalists to "shine light into dark corners" of government affairs during a speech late Saturday, but wouldn't take questions from reporters covering the event.

Mr. Harper, who is known for his sometimes prickly relationship with parliamentary reporters, made the comments during an ethnic media awards dinner in Markham, north of Toronto.

Freedom for Canadians goes hand-in-hand with journalistic freedom, he told the dinner guests gathered at Seneca College in Markham, home to thriving Asian communities.

Members of the ethnic press and their readers understand what it's like in countries where "truth is only what the state says it is" and journalists are co-opted as government mouthpieces or threatened with their lives, Mr. Harper said.

Things couldn't be more different here in Canada, he added.

"Our government does not tell journalists what to say, or attempt to intimidate those with whom it disagrees," he said.

"Instead we believe strongly that Canadians' freedom is enhanced when journalists are free to pursue the truth, to shine light into dark corners, and to assist the process of holding governments accountable."

But shortly after making the speech and handing out awards, Mr. Harper was whisked through the black curtains behind the stage without taking questions from reporters.

The Prime Minister's staff said before the event, which was open to the media, that Mr. Harper would not be taking questions from reporters covering the event, which was organized by the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada.

He has yet to comment on explosive allegations that top government officials knew about the torture of Afghans taken prisoner by Canadian soldiers and handed off to Afghan forces.

Since Mr. Harper came to power, the schedule for cabinet meetings became shrouded in mystery, requests for routine information can take days or sometimes ignored altogether and delays in processing freedom-of-information requests has grown markedly.

His office also imposed new rules that allow Mr. Harper's staff to choose which reporter is allowed to ask him a question - a practice more commonly used in Washington by U.S. presidents.

The federal Conservatives have long courted ethnic voters through the newspapers and other media that serve them, a tactic used by the Liberal party for decades.

In his speech, Mr. Harper noted that the Tory caucus includes members of Canada's diverse communities, such 'as International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda.

Canada's Conservative parties have always "sought to open doors" for those seeking to represent Canada's ethnic communities, he said.

Douglas Jung, the first Chinese Canadian elected to Parliament, was a Conservative, as was Lincoln Alexander, the first black cabinet minister.

"I had to mention that," Mr. Harper said with a grin.

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